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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Douglas murder and embezzlement scandal drew interest from media

This is the second in a two-part series in which the Daily looks back 25 years at a case in which a faculty member at the Tufts Medical School embezzled thousands of dollars from the university to fund his ongoing affair with a prostitute and then murdered her.

The first piece, published on Tuesday, outlined details of the scandal; this one will compare its effect on the Tufts community and the attention it received to the case of Jodie Nealley and Ray Rodriguez's.

When former Director of Student Activities Jodie Nealley was fired in November for allegedly embezzling around  $300,000, the story garnered relatively widespread attention: The Boston Globe and The Associated Press each provided almost immediate coverage and have followed with updates as the case evolves.

And although the media attention this time around has appeared to produce a public relations nightmare for Tufts, its details pale in comparison to those surrounding an embezzlement/murder scandal 25 years ago on the Hill. 

When Dr. William H. Douglas of the Tufts Medical School was caught in 1983 stealing thousands from the university and eventually convicted of murdering his young mistress, media outlets latched onto the lurid details.

Unlike with its current counterpart, this attention came absent a discernible effect on undergraduate students at Tufts. Currently, students and administrators alike are scrambling to institute new protocols and move on from the alleged Nealley and Ray Rodriguez, the Office of Student Activities' former budget and fiscal coordinator, embezzlement. But when Douglas' activity was uncovered, the impact here was mostly contained to his colleagues.

University Professor Sol Gittleman, who was then Tufts' provost, remembers the researcher's peers at the School of Medicine, which is located in Boston, saying he was innocent when he was first accused of embezzlement.

 "Two of his colleagues … said he was not responsible for his actions. They were supporting their colleague," he said. "They didn't want to believe it downtown because he was a colleague."

Gittleman said that because Douglas was part of the campus' medical community, the undergraduates were distanced from his case.

"The reporters liked [the Douglas case] because it was lurid, sick," Gittleman said. "[But with] the undergraduates, somehow it didn't resonate."

For members of the Tufts Comm-unity Senate, who relied on Nealley for advising, today's controversy hits a more personal chord.

"The undergraduates knew so much more about Nealley and … Rodriguez," Gittleman said. "This one, which is not murder, gets much more noise on the campus than the Douglas case did."

But what the Douglas scandal lacked in interest from students, it gained in media coverage. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Teresa Carpenter became heavily engrossed in researching the case and reported the story in her 1989 book "Missing Beauty: A True Story of Murder and Obsession."

"I first heard about Professor Douglas over lunch with a colleague. She had read an account of the affair in The New York Times," Carpenter told the Daily in an e-mail. "The story was fascinating on its face. How could such an apparently accomplished scientist and family man carry on such a bizarre shadow existence?"

Carpenter set about interviewing involved parties ranging from the victim's family to the investigators who pieced the case together to prostitutes themselves. "Perhaps the most interesting set of encounters I had were in the Combat Zone [in downtown Boston]. The working girls I met there were surprisingly decent. Not one of them asked to be paid for an interview," Carpenter said.

She said her book was especially well received by women. "I can only speculate that they empathized with the professor's wife," she said.

Reputable news sources like The New York Times and The Boston Globe covered the case carefully, while tabloids grabbed at the scandal's potential for sensationalism. A made-for-television movie, "The High Price of Passion," was even released in 1986.

Norfork County Special Sheriff John Kivlan, who served as the prosecutor in Douglas' case, said that the media was enticed by the complex and twisted nature of the researcher's crimes.

"He was a Tufts professor, she was a prostitute — and by all accounts was very attractive," he said. "It had all the elements that the media was interested in, including the fact that it was a mystery."

Followers outside of the Tufts community were less focused on the crime itself and liked learning about the people involved, Kivlan said.

"I think the interest of the media at the time was the relationship, the mystery; it was more about who they were than it was about the embezzlement at the time," he said.

Tufts administrators like Steven Manos, who was serving as executive vice president in 1983, had opposing considerations in mind. Manos, who held the post until he retired last fall, got into the financial details of the case during the initial investigation he helped conduct.

He was not fazed by the media circus and avoided talking to reporters. "I didn't think I particularly needed to be involved. I wasn't up too much on the buzz," he said.

Gittleman has tried to put the case into perspective. "It was a very nice, gory case," he said. "[But] once you get into it, you realize there are all sorts of people everywhere. You just dealt with it. Someone in the community went bonkers [but] you've got compulsive personalities everywhere."